Brooke Harrington, an American tax expert with a PhD from Harvard University, was about to make Copenhagen her home when she found out she was facing criminal charges.

Her offense was giving talks to the Danish parliament and chamber of commerce. It turns out that was illegal, violating work restrictions for non-European nationals, much to the surprise of both the parliament and Harrington’s employer, the Copenhagen Business School. What’s more, Harrington thought she was just living up to her employer’s requirement to share her research with the public.

That belief was exploded when she received a phone call from the police on a Saturday evening.

Pedestrians sit on the side of the harbor canal opposite residential buildings in the Christians Havn district of Copenhagen, Denmark.
Pedestrians sit on the side of the harbor canal opposite residential buildings in the Christians Havn district of Copenhagen, Denmark. Freya Ingrid Morales/Bloomberg

Having spent eight years in Denmark, the 49-year-old says she now faces a bleak choice: Either plead guilty to violating the Aliens Act, leave Denmark and be lumbered with a potentially career-ending criminal record; or endure a long and possibly bank-breaking battle in court.

The case clashes awkwardly with Denmark’s vocal efforts to attract the world’s brightest to fill vacancies and boost productivity. It also reflects the tight grip that the anti-immigration Danish People’s Party, on which the minority coalition government relies for support in parliament, has on policy in the Scandinavian country.

“I am devastated and heartbroken,” Harrington said in a telephone interview in Copenhagen. “I’ve invested years of my life in my career and I thought I had finally made it in Denmark.”

Danish Dilemma

In some respects, Denmark is a victim of its own success. A solid economy, coupled with an enviable work-life balance (Copenhagen came first, ahead of Oslo and Zurich, in the 2017 Best Cities for Families Index) and the safety net of an extensive welfare state have all contributed to making it a popular destination for professionals like Harrington. That’s good news for Danish business, which has repeatedly complained about bottlenecks and shortages in the labor market. The Confederation of Danish Industry recently estimated that 40 percent of its member companies “have had difficulty recruiting qualified staff.”

At the same time, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen and his finance minister, Kristian Jensen, have to contend with the right-wing DPP, whose motto is that “Denmark is not an immigrant country and has never been.” First legitimized in 2001 by Anders Fogh Rasmussen—a former premier and NATO chief—the DPP has grown in popularity, leapfrogging the Liberals as the second-largest party in the 2015 general election and exerting an ever deeper influence on successive governments.

Harrington says she moved to Denmark from Germany eight years ago believing she would be resettling in “an open, friendly society. The kind Bernie Sanders talks about.” She now talks of a country “playing with fire” by pursuing “ultra-nationalist policies” and worries about the future of her seven-year-old son.

Damage Done

The author of a book on tax havens, Harrington’s expertise turned her into a much sought-after commodity as interest in the Panama and Paradise Papers spread. But the talks she gave to lawmakers ran afoul of a little-known provision in the Danish Aliens Act that obliges non-EU nationals on temporary work permits to seek permission before accepting a side job.

Unfortunately, “no one, including the CBS president, had any idea that this was going to be a problem. We received no warning from the immigration authorities,” Harrington said.

The Chicago native is not alone. According to Danish state broadcaster DR, at least eight foreign researchers employed by universities across the country have been reported to the police for similar breaches. Jimmy Martinez-Correa, a Colombian economist also at CBS, was recently acquitted on similar charges after the high court found that the rules were so opaque that he couldn’t have known he was committing a crime.

Martinez-Correa’s lawyer, who is also representing Harrington, says the problem only arose after Integration Minister Inger Stojberg opted for a stricter interpretation of the law. He’s hopeful of another acquittal. The alternative is a hefty fine and, in the worst case scenario, a jail term.

With the academic’s predicament picked up by local media, Stojberg has promised to have another look at the rules.

“In my view they’re outdated and inflexible, therefore we should change them as soon as possible,” Stojberg said in an email. “This government wants qualified labor to come to Denmark,” she said, adding that she would be presenting a proposal to parliament soon.

That may be too late. According to the Confederation of Danish Employers, EU citizens’ arrivals have already dropped 65 percent over the past 15 months.

“Yesterday, I received an email from a U.S. colleague who was offered a job interview at CBS. He wrote: ‘Guess that ain’t happening now’,” Harrington said.

—With assistance from Peter Levring

Bloomberg News